Resilience is defined by the American Psychological Association as: ‘The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress and bouncing back from difficult experiences.’ Resilient people have an approach to life that is characterised by realistic optimism, self-confidence, a sense of humour, the ability to stay focused under pressure, not being easily defeated by failure and finding meaning even in negative experiences. They often have a track record of dealing successfully with stressful situations. Such people also tend to be happier and more successful than their less resilient counterparts.
There are two basic personality factors that allow some people to be more naturally resilient than others.
The first is the trait known as ‘hardiness’. This characteristic has three main elements: a commitment to seeing life as meaningful and interesting; a belief that a person can influence events, and a tendency to look at all experiences you have as opportunities to learn and develop. Hardy individuals are more open to change; they tend to interpret any stressful experiences as a normal part of life, and they are less susceptible to boredom. One study* found that Gulf War veterans scored higher than average on this.
The other personality factor is a quality described as ‘mental toughness’. People who score highly on mental toughness tend to be persistent, focused and confident in their abilities. They are better able to withstand external pressures and cope with anxiety, as well as endure hardship and pain, and they also tend to be responsive to new sensations, self-disciplined in their everyday lives, and not prone to worrying.
Personality is only one factor here, however. Fortunately, we can all cultivate behavioural strategies to boost our levels of resilience.
So how do we do that?
1. Reframe fear. The physical symptoms of stress and fear are remarkably similar to those of excitement – a raised heart rate, blood pumping and sweaty palms. ‘When symptoms of fear kick in, try reinterpreting them. For example, if you’re about to speak in public, tell yourself, “I’m feeling like this because I’m hyped up. This is exciting, it’s adrenalin and that’s a good thing”. If you control your thoughts, your physiology will be better able to cope with the situation,’ advises psychologist Emma Barrett.
2. Change your script. People who generally do well in interviews and appraisals tend to be naturally good at putting a positive spin on negative experiences, explains career coach John Lees, author of Secrets Of Resilient People (Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99). ‘Resilient people understand that there are always two possible narratives, the downward slope towards victim mode and the story that’s all about growth. So they’ll tell you: “I was fired from that job, but it enabled me to learn something life-changing…”’
3. Be careful who you panic with. ‘Sometimes the best thing you can do when things are going wrong is just take yourself offline. Go for a walk and pause for reflection, rather than let others around you witness you losing it. This is particularly pertinent at work,’ says Lees.
4. Postpone worry. If something is bugging you, it can help to exercise some containment. ‘Make an appointment for worry. Tell yourself you’ll worry about X on Tuesday at 3pm. Mark it in your diary, if need be. Chances are that the worry will have lost its charge by then,’ says Lees.
5. Resilience isn’t about reinvention. ‘You don’t need to become a different person to be resilient,’ says Lees. ‘Self-awareness isn’t about improving in all directions. Sometimes it’s about ’fessing up, saying “I’m not a good organiser or I’m not good at reading people.” If you do that, then you can honestly turn to others and ask for help.’
Photograph: Markus Moellenberg/Corbis
Read How to develop mental grit on LifeLabs